In her miraculous first book “H Is for Hawk,” Helen Macdonald told of the bond she formed with a goshawk named Mabel in the painful aftermath of her father’s death. Predominantly a personal memoir and a meditation on grief, the book was also an enthralling work of nature writing in which Macdonald vividly and poetically conveyed her love of flora and fauna in general and her obsession with birds in particular.
Macdonald’s latest book is a collection of essays, the majority of which focus on aspects of nature, or what she calls “the glittering world of nonhuman life around us.” In her introduction she expresses the hope that her book might resemble a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. This turns out to be a fitting comparison. “Vesper Flights” showcases a rich assortment of strange and beautiful wonders to reflect on, learn from, and marvel at.
The essays are personal accounts involving observation, recollection and, above all, fascination. In the opening piece, Macdonald looks back at her younger self’s decision to be a naturalist and at the childhood collection she amassed. A guilty confession about collecting nests leads to an examination of human and avian habits and habitats (birds’ nests are not fixed refuges but “seasonal secrets”) and a poignant memory relating to communication with an unhatched falcon chick.
In an essay about the ancient English tradition of “swan upping,” Macdonald joins a team of experts for a swan-catching expedition on the River Thames. It takes place a month after the Brexit vote and so prompts Macdonald to explore the relationship between natural history and national history, and to find her bearings in a country she no longer recognizes.
Elsewhere, Macdonald allows other discussions to develop from the intersections between human life and wildlife. In “A Cuckoo in the House” she draws intriguing parallels between cuckoos (“birds of mystery”) and spies. In “The Human Flock” she takes in the majestic sight of thousands of migrating cranes in Hungary and then ruminates on the curtailed freedom of the Syrian refugees detained across the border.
Some essays describe experiences that are grand in scope: trekking in high-altitude Chilean deserts, viewing songbirds from atop the Empire State Building, watching a feeding frenzy between herring gulls and flying ants. However, the quieter, more contemplative essays which deal with the small-scale delights of the British countryside are just as captivating. Macdonald’s untrammeled joy proves infectious, whether she is hunting for mushrooms, gaping at boxing hares, or indulging in seasonal pleasures such as a woodland walk on a winter’s day or a glowworm light-show on a summer’s night.
For many this year, the great outdoors has been the great beyond, rendering it impossible to feel at one with nature. For this reason, “Vesper Flights” is essential reading right now. But it is also a book to relish at any time, both for its intelligence and grace, and its ability to edify and enchant in equal measure.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Helen Macdonald.
Publisher: Grove Press, 261 pages, $27.